This week I was invited to speak at a Debating Development session at the University of Antwerp. The topic was “A smart what? Investigating the global impact of ten years of smartphones.”

Manfred Santen of Greenpeace Germany presented the report “From smart to senseless: the global impact of ten years of smartphones.” It makes fascinating reading. Many of the issues that have been clear to industry members are summarised nicely in the report – including the material complexity of the products and the challenges of recovering all materials from them. You can work out (if you really want to!) that there are around 0.4mg of Gallium on average in a smartphone – good luck recovering that.

One interesting outcome is the positive light that Apple received in Manfred’s presentation. Of course, there is still a long way to go but he was genuinely impressed with Apple’s published commitment to source recycled materials for its products, and its past work on sourcing renewable energy.

Greenpeace’s report rightly states that we need to change the business model to increase circularity. My own talk focused on how we could deliver these changes, and I shared examples QSA has helped to deliver in the UK such as Samsung’s Upgrade business model and Argos’s nationwide gadget trade-in scheme. The audience was impressed that major companies could implement these schemes in a profitable business model and asked what stopped companies from growing the model to other European countries.

I also shared some of my experience of the South Korean repair services that I observed on a visit a few years ago. Once again, many in the audience were envious of the great service that South Korean customers received, and one question was “Why don’t we get such good service?”

Along the way, I asked the audience several questions of my own and (although not scientific) the usual proportions showed up: 98% owned a smartphone, around 85% purchased it brand new, around half had broken the screen and needed a repair, almost none knew about data protection implications on their products.

There were some great questions from the audience, even though only a few were familiar with the concept of Circular Economy at the start of the session. My favourite question was “If we source materials more ethically, what does this do to the livelihoods of those working in mines we consider unethical?” It’s a serious concern – one that has implications for many industries (e.g. which systems are fairer for farm workers: Better Cotton Initiative or Cotton Made in Africa?)

In closing, many people appeared to agree with our opinion that the customer is at the centre of the circular economy and that business model change will be successful if it focuses on customer needs. It was great to see such an engaged audience and I recommend the Debating Development series for other readers and presenters!